Life After a PhD, The Importance of Getting Certifications

A Personal Aside

This is a follow up to a Q&A I wrote two years ago for University Affairs magazine From Ph.D. to Life section (link-out available here).  In that piece, I described how I made the segue from neuroscience research to working as a teacher in a special education classroom.

Please go and read that article before continuing with this one. This post describes the twists and turns I have taken toward my future life as a special educator. Since that piece came out,  I have had many professional setbacks regarding teaching licensures that I feel I should share with everyone so they can learn from my mistakes and experiences.

My Narrative

When I was hired for my first teaching position, I was hired on what is called a Letter of Authorization. In Utah, this means they hired me knowing I did not have a teaching license. Given Utah rules, I had 3 years to get my licensure either through a traditional university program or what is called an “Alternative Route to Licensure“.

2014 Fall Semester

As soon as I was hired in July 2014, I started emailing the Utah State Board of Education regarding licensing issues and how I would move forward to get a Special Education teaching license with a Severe Disabilities endorsement. The first thing I was told was that the Alternative Route to Licensure was not available to me as they did not have a Severe Endorsement program, only a Mild/Moderate endorsement. They also told me that any university-level teaching experience I had was worthless and would in no way be taken into account when determining licensure.

Reading this email, I asked about another program, called an “Alternative Teacher Preparation” program (ATP). This program was set up to allow local universities to provide abbreviated instruction towards licensure. They said this was an option, but the only available plan was via Utah State University and was taught live in the evening twice a week in Salt Lake City (I was living ~50 miles away to the South). The other programs that offered online or telecourse options, but these were not available for a Severe endorsement.

I contacted the ATP program through Utah State University, and they said that I was not able to join that semester as they already had their cohort together and I would have an opportunity to start the following year. I would still be able to finish a 15-month long training program within the subsequent two years without a problem.  I thanked them, gave them my contact information and went on my merry way to teach my class and not worry about licensure until May-ish when I would need to apply.

At this point, I did not investigate into any alternative options, because I was informed by the Utah State Board of Education that the only way I was going to get a Severe Disabilities endorsement was to go through the Utah State University ATP program.

2015 Winter Semester

Come January, I sent a followup email to make sure the Utah State folks remembered my name and were keeping me in mind. They notified me that the ATP program I was waiting on had been canceled, and they were working on designing a replacement, but I would be the first one notified when they got it all put together. This was stressful, but I thought it was okay given they had some months to put a program together.

In May, I contacted Utah State as I saw the program info had been updated. However, when I went to apply I was again notified that the cohort was already chosen. I was furious. I sent 8-10 very assertive emails to the program coordinator and CC’d the department and program heads at Utah State. I wanted to know why their promises had fallen flat and why they were going to deny me access to education I needed.

2015 Fall Semester

A meeting was set up between myself and the person administrating the program. They said there had been many “high-level” meetings in the special education department and they had decided that I could join the program and we set up a schedule. My first semester consisted of class 2 days a week from 4:30 PM until ~10:00 PM. I also had to start two online courses immediately that I was already two weeks behind on…

The program had changed from an ATP-type program to a hybrid online-telecourse undergraduate program to provide a Special Education teaching license with a Severe endorsement. It seemed odd for an undergraduate program to just offer a teaching license, but I saw no other options. So I went with it.

So, here I was, taking 4 classes through Utah State University and teaching as a full-time teacher in two different schools in the school district. My teaching contract ended at 4:00 PM, and I had to be in class at 4:30 PM. It was tight, but I was able to make it…barely.

I got all As in my classes except a C+ in one. Sadly, this one class was a prerequisite class that stalled me in the program. Out of 10 students in that class, 6 ended up in the C range, and one got a D and was kicked out of the program for “failing” the class. There was something not right here. The class involved breaking down the common core and essential elements into component parts and to design assessments to assess mastery. This is something I have been doing for years.

2016 Winter Semester – 2017 Winter Semester

I had to retake the class before I could complete the rest of my coursework. However, the class is only offered every OTHER year. Yes, a critical and essential pre-requisite course for the program is only available on alternate years during the fall semester, not the winter, spring, or summer semesters. An online course. Once every 8 terms. While I waited two years for the course to be available again, I took the non-practicum courses for the Severe specialization.

I was beginning to panic. I wouldn’t be able to complete my licensure in the three years allotted time, so I also looked into doing the ARL program for Mild/Moderate disabilities assuming I could figure out how to get my severe endorsement another time. Well, since I was working in the district office by this time, I was not eligible for the ARL program since I was not in a classroom teaching 51% of the time. At least on paper. In reality, I was in classes 90+% of the time teaching, but this was not acceptable to the Utah State Board of Education. So no ARL for me. Crap.

2017 Spring and Summer Semesters

When the time came to take the class again, I met with the person administrating the program. She notified me that due to the time course of classes not being offered every term, it was going to take me an additional two years (6 terms) to complete the program, with student teaching happening Fall 2019. Had Utah State offered the online classes each semester, as one would expect, it would have taken 2 semesters to complete everything, and I could’ve had my license by May 2018.

The secretary explained to me that this was all because they had re-tooled the program…again. The ATP program in Severe had been reinstated by Utah State University and the State. Imagine how loathsome I was hearing this program had gone away and come back at precisely the wrong times, thus screwing me over.

What amazes me is that the secretary was able to tell me all of this with a straight face. I kept my composure only because there was no point in freaking out. I could not change anything and yelling at her wasn’t going to make me feel better.

I tried another tact. I hurriedly applied for a teaching license that had just been designed by the Utah State Legislature. It was called the Academic Pathway to Teaching (APT). It was meant as a method to get professionals into classrooms to teach with access to mentorship that would result in a teacher receiving tenure and a traditional teaching license.

They accepted my application, so I am now a licensed teacher. However, two of the local school districts do not accept this license as valid as they refuse to take on the training responsibility. So happens I was working in one of these school districts. Lovely.

Through all this, my three years as a provisional teacher came and went. I lost my position as a teacher because I did not have a teaching license. Human Resources did what they do best, and enforced a rule without regard to anything other than the letter of the rule. After talking with Utah State, I was no closer to have a license.

Took 31 credit hours. Paid $15,000 for tuition. No licensure. No degree.

Getting home, I lost my temper and ranted for a while to my wife. I then angrily started googling Master’s programs in Special Education. If I was going to not have a job I was going to get an M.Ed in Special Education with a Special education teaching license and a Severe endorsement. However, it was the end of July 2017; I wasn’t going to be able to enroll in any programs for the Fall 2017 semester.

2017 Fall Semester

I called the local universities (except Utah State as I am still mad at them) to see how these programs would unfold. Some were faster but required telecourses. Others drug on for years. In the end, I enrolled at the University of Utah (again) as a nonmatriculated student to take classes toward an M.Ed assuming I could get into the program.

While taking classes, I had to prepare my application to get back into graduate school. Well, I was now in a silly position. I had to take the GRE again as my scores had expired. So here I am, I have a biology degree from the University of Utah, a neuroscience Ph.D. from the University of California Davis, and 3 years of teaching experience, studying for the GRE. Again. I was pretty certain that the master’s program was going to reject my application because it looks so ridiculous for someone with a Ph.D. to come BACK to school for a master’s degree…

2018 Winter Semester

All said and done I was thankfully accepted into the program. I am now working toward an M.Ed in Special Education with Special Education teaching licensure with an endorsement in Visual Impairments and Severe. And BONUS, I was able to get a grant that will cover all my fees, tuition, and expenses. Yahoo!

So I emailed Utah State University to tell them I was taking a leave of absence and they notified me the person who was in charge of the program had moved on… Good timing I guess. I still receive Canvas invitations and emails for all classes from Utah State. One of these days they will remember to remove me from the class lists, perhaps.

The timing of everything works out better too. Utah State’s program is not degree terminus and I was told I wouldn’t be able to student teach until Fall 2019. The Master’s program I am in now will end the same time. And I will get an M.Ed on top of my teaching license.

Official / Unofficial Sabbatical

Now I am working half-time as a paraeducator in a Diagnostic Kindergarten/1st-grade classroom (special education kindergarten for mild/moderate students) and attending a graduate program full-time. I have an end in sight, and I get to directly interact with professors and other students in the program rather than sit in a room and listen to a TV bloviate. All the Utah State courses were online and not classroom based. Now that I am enrolled in a university degree program, I am happy. I am progressing toward being a licensed special education teacher.

What lessons can we learn?

First and obviously, don’t get anything less than a B in a class. If the professors are a pain in the butt and not helpful, contact the department. Go over their heads. Do what is necessary to get that grade. I can’t believe I’m telling you to grade-grub!

More useful is this advice:

It is very easy to leave an academic degree thinking you have the requisite skills and knowledge to do jobs in the real world. You do. But you cannot prove it. You have not jumped through the necessary hoops. You have not conformed to the standard protocols. You have not completed the necessary but arbitrary checkmarks that bureaucracy expects!!

Italian bureaucracy

For me, I want to be a special education teacher. Above I described what I did. This is what I should have done.

  1. Get a job as a paraeducator
  2. Enroll in an M.Ed. or M.S. program that also provides teaching licensure as a part of the process
  3. After starting the M.Ed., either work as a paraeducator or apply for a job as a teacher
  4. Focus all energy on completing the M.Ed program

However, it was hard to know what to do when I was simply following the instructions from the bureaucrats. I tried to complete the Utah State University program because that’s what the State Board of Education told me to do. I should have known to distrust Universities that did not result in an academic degree. Academic degree terminal programs are tightly regulated. Licensure programs are a lot more loosey-goosey. Knowing academics as I do from 15 years work experience, professors are not good with requirements that are loosey-goosey. It is far too easy for them to flake and change their mind since there are no rules to stop them from tweaking the program. Learn from my mistakes, don’t do what I did.

I think what frustrates me the most about the Utah State program is that they have no culpability when they fail to meet students expectations. Remember that the program is ONLY providing a licensure NOT a degree (i.e., B.S., B.A., M.Ed, etc.). The program did less than nothing to ensure the program was successful in training and providing adequate instruction. More than half the students failed and / or dropped out of the program. The program got canceled repeatedly. Classes were occasionally taught by graduate students, not professors, and learning objectives flat didn’t exist. Given the critical teacher shortage in Utah, especially in Special Education classrooms, it is beyond disgusting to see a university program so inept.

As an added example of the lack of appropriateness of the Utah State Program, I was required to take two ABA courses. I am well published as not being a fan of ABA for a number of reasons and my Ph.D. was literally studying behavior. However, forcing me to take ABA classes was not the problem here. The problem was that both of these ABA classes were taught by graduate students new to their respective programs and neither of them had been BCBA certified long enough to be allowed to train others in ABA methods. But Utah State felt it was appropriate to have these unqualified students teach future teachers ABA.

Now I am finally doing it right. It took losing a teaching job I loved to get here. Not to mention $15,000+ down the drain to Utah State for a series of programs that ended up failing me.

So, remember. Licensures and certifications are critical in the real world. Having a Ph.D. may impress people (probably just intimidate and scare people away) and it does not allow you to bypass HR requirements. So just take the classes and learn all you can in degree-terminal programs that are established and reputable whenever possible. Do not take shortcuts!


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